TCS Daily


The Atomic Ring

By James Pinkerton - August 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Sixty years ago today, the Japanese government surrendered, ending World War Two. Ever since then, America has been on a wild ride of technological innovation and military competition. It's been a strange and sometimes scary trip, but the only thing worse than riding would be stopping -- because others would leave us in their dust. Or, to use another, darker Tolkienian analogy, we must possess the Ring, so that others can't use the Ring against us.

Japanese emperor Hirohito's radio speech to his people on August 15, 1945, was a masterpiece of understatement: "The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage."

But in the wake of the atomic bomb, which ended the war -- and don't let anyone tell you it would have ended easily without it -- Americans concluded that the importance of technology could not be overstated.

To be sure, the US had always been richer in resource-technology than in expendable manpower. In the nation's earliest years, the need for a domestic armaments industry was the prime motivator for Alexander Hamilton's Report on Manufactures, in which our first Secretary of the Treasury told Congress that it was vital for the republic to be "independent on foreign nations for military and other essential supplies."

Yet it was World War Two that made plain that machinery and weaponry effectively trump bravery and virtuosity on the battlefield. That is, a single atom bomb could have defeated an entire army of Robert E. Lees. And so America made its fateful fusion of ancient military art and the latest in modern science, and that fusion defines the Pentagon to this day. The military-industrial complex -- or, if you prefer, the high-tech arsenal of democracy -- has been established at the cornerstone of American strategic thinking.

A key figure in this cornerstoning was Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold, who oversaw US air operations during World War Two. Not long before he retired in 1946, Arnold submitted a landmark document to the Secretary of War, outlining the need for continuing close scientific-military cooperation in the years ahead:

During this war the Army, Army Air Forces, and the Navy have made unprecedented use of scientific and industrial resources. The conclusion is inescapable that we have not yet established the balance necessary to insure the continuance of teamwork among the military, other government agencies, industry, and the universities. Scientific planning must be years in advance of the actual research and development work.

But Arnold was no mere war-nerd. In the previous decades, he had earned his credibility in the air -- an arduous and dangerous duty back then. Born in 1886, he literally learned how to fly from the Wright Brothers; in his early years as a pilot, in 1911 and 1912, he set military records for both speed and altitude. Even though -- as detailed in Eric Larrabee's 1987 book, Commander In Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, And Their War -- 11 of the 24 Army officers who earned their wings between 1909 and 1913 were killed in training and seven more died in subsequent crashes, Arnold, for decades thereafter, continued to push the envelope, flight-wise. In 1934, he won a Distinguished Flying Cross for the then-remarkable feat of piloting a plane nonstop from Juneau to Seattle.

Without question, Arnold had "the right stuff". Yet his true greatness was his deskbound determination to research and develop the best possible weapons and instruments for America's next war. Taking over as chief of the Army Air Corps in 1938, he supervised the construction of the B-17, the B-29, and the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, the US military's first jet. And demonstrating further that he was more than an ex-flyboy, Arnold paid equal attention to less-glamorous inventions, such as radar and the proximity fuse.

But even as he was making sure that Victory Through Airpower was more than just a Hollywood slogan, Arnold was also looking ahead to the next wave of aeromilitary innovation: missiles and rockets. To him, the issue was delivering ordnance down on the enemy -- and it was that end, not the means, that mattered. So as early as 1917, decades before anyone had ever heard of Wernher Von Braun, Arnold was working with the great technologist Charles F. Kettering to develop "The Bug" -- the two men's nickname for a guided missile, which might fly as far as forty miles to strike its target. As chronicler Larrabee put it, "Arnold insisted on staying in touch with scientists and engineers who could think far ahead of his own people."

Indeed, Arnold's willingness to think anew lasted all his life; in 1949, the year before his death, he published a book called Global Mission, in which he prophesied that "the future Air Force need not . . . have one single man in any of its aircraft."

Obviously there's still a need for pilots, a half-century later, even as cruise missiles and UAVs increasingly do more of the work. But Arnold set the tone for the future US military -- that we should seek to overwhelm the foe through materiel, not manpower.

And of course, the ultimate in military materiel was, and is, atomic weaponry.

Even though the A-bomb undoubtedly saved lives, the onset of the nuclear age brought second thoughts to many. The most famous of these second-thoughtsers was J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer went to see President Truman at the White House in October 1945, where he exclaimed, "Mr. President, I have blood on my hands." After the meeting, Truman told an aide, "Don't you bring that crybaby in here again." Truman, never one to shrink from responsibility, added, "After all, all he did was make the bomb. I'm the guy who fired it off." Yet others, too, took up hair-shirting. The anti-nuclear Federation of Atomic Scientists (later Federation of American Scientists) was founded in December 1945; the famous Doomsday Clock debuted two years later.

But for most Americans in the wake of World War Two, it was apparent that no turning back of the clock was possible -- in terms of political economy, national security, or technology. So of necessity, the late 40s were a time of extraordinary intellectual fertility, a time when enduring structures were put in place that define our world to this day.

On the political front, America realized that it could not shrink from global leadership, as it had done after World War One. Thus new diplomatic and economic frameworks -- the United Nations, Bretton Woods, the World Bank/International Monetary Fund, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade -- were created and nurtured, mostly by the US.

As for national security, the American defense establishment reinvented itself to gear up for the Cold War. The National Security Act of 1947 consolidated the Departments of War and Navy into a single Department of Defense. That statute also created the National Security Council and the CIA.

In terms of technology, the defense-related activity was equally ambitious. Even as all the services systematized their pursuit of new and improved war machines, the government saw the need for "meta" institutions to think about strategy and technology for the new era. The RAND Corporation, which correctly calls itself "the original think tank," emerged out of the attic of the Douglas Aircraft Company after World War Two, becoming a full-fledged independent entity in 1948. A fascinating new book, The Worlds of Herman Kahn, by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, chronicles the life of the colorful and controversial nuclear theorist -- author of tomes with such catchy titles as On Thermonuclear War -- perhaps the most famous RAND-ian of them all.

And of course, when the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb of its own on August 29, 1949, the urgency of defending against/staying ahead of a potentially mortal adversary was clinched.

Yet today, six decades later, America faces a stubborn irony. That is, for all the vast and necessary strategizing about nuclear war -- how to fight one as best we can, how to survive one as best we can -- the US has, in fact, fought zero such wars since 1945. Uncle Sam has participated instead in hundreds of skirmishes, police actions, and non-nuclear wars. It could be argued, of course, that the reason all those combats have stayed relatively small -- even Vietnam killed just a seventh as many Americans as died in World War Two -- is the overshadowing presence of nukes.

But we still face the challenge of doing well in the fights we have. So to further compound the irony, our military finds itself unable to bring even its non-nuclear technology to bear on the enemy. In Iraq, for example, it would be easy to use air power to simply flatten the entirety of Sunnistan with conventional ordnance. But we can't, or won't, for political reasons. So instead, our GI's ride around in (insufficiently) armored vehicles, to be targeted by a savvy but low-tech enemy. Yes, we have the latest in "netcentric" warfighting tools, but such equipment does relatively little good if the mission at hand is finding a cache of IED's.

So has the US overbought in the last 60 years? Might we have scrimped a bit by downsizing the recommendations of Hap Arnold and reducing all those expenditures on jets, rockets, gizmos -- and nukes?

One answer is that it's always better to be safe than sorry. Any amount of prophylactic military expenditure is been better than even a single nuclear "hit" on the US.

But a second answer is that while we don't know what's coming next, we do know that a lot of it is scary. For example, Pakistan has just tested its first nuclear-capable cruise missile. And if Pakistan can make such a weapon, a couple dozen other countries can do even better.

Indeed, it's proven to be more difficult to end evil than many of our best and brightest have claimed. In a world where Moore's Law is still playing out, there's no relaxing -- no getting off the tumultuous techno-ride.

So the next 60 years might well be scarier than the last 60 years, as galloping technology threatens to trample the fixed territory of this island earth.

One might ask: What sort of prospect does this persistent threat pose for humanity? Is there any relief or escape?

But perhaps those aren't the right questions. The true point to make is that we don't have a choice other than to live as best we can, and to defend ourselves as best we can -- although the option of relocation to other places in the solar system is surely one to develop as a lifeboat, as a fallout shelter in the sky, just in case.

We might be reminded of the first "Lord of the Rings," when Frodo lamented to Gandalf, "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened." To which Gandalf answers, "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

And that's the answer: the Atomic Ring has been forged, and there's no Mt. Doom to throw it in, even if we wanted to. So we just have to deal with it, that's all.


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